Weiwei & Chicago

Ai Weiwei

I recently went to see Ai Weiwei’s large exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and the single word I would use to describe it is underwhelming. I appreciate his stature as an activist, however I found his work rather uncompelling in this show. For anyone at least half aware of contemporary art, Weiwei is a household name. His character is unforgettable with his scraggly beard and continued humor as he resists suppression by Chinese authorities. I remember appreciating the cleverness of a piece from his time in New York, a raincoat with a condom. It poetically spoke to sexuality and protectiveness both in a symbolic and literal way. More recently I knew him for his iconic photo triptych of dropping a Han dynasty vase. And then even closer to now, his imprisonment by Chinese authorities while his excellent sculptural work was on display at the Tate. I was heartened by the global support that undoubtably contributed to his eventual release. My final recollection of Weiwei before seeing this exhibit was his embarrassingly silly music video which inadvertently satirized his imprisonment by being so unbelievably cheesy. This was my context for experiencing his show.

While there were some other pieces (both the raincoat and triptych mentioned were on display), the show strongly emphasized his reactions to the 2008 Szechuan earthquake. Other works echoed this theme of direct political involvement, including a room documenting the possessions of a displaced activist as well as a documentary showing the life of a man living with HIV/AIDS. Perhaps my mood at the time influenced my reactions, but though they may be critical, I find them relevant for this article. In short, I found little difference between this museum show and the contents of my Facebook feed on any given day. The pieces emphasized in this exhibition served basically as journalism trying to function as art. Both his works and the many articles I find on Facebook serve to document and raise awareness of a variety of injustices in the world. His pieces tell me about an earthquake while my Facebook feed tells me about Gaza, the conflict in Ukraine, the rising Islamic State, police brutality. In so many ways, they do the same thing. His content is presented through objects which offer little until the explanatory paragraph is read on the wall. Articles present their content through paragraphs on blogs. It felt incidental that I was experiencing this as art in a museum. It felt almost arbitrary. Both my Facebook and his show offered almost the same thing in different packages.

I don’t meant to sound cynical, but I feel as if Weiwei could have simply directed me to a blog and achieved many of the same things. Obviously, the earthquake is specific and the audience of a museum is assumedly different, but on a more fundamental level I felt so many parallels. Yes, these are important issues, but did it make for a compelling exhibit? I would say no. It seems almost conservative and old-fashioned to voice this sentiment, but I feel as if there’s something valuable about artwork which engages with political issues without simply becoming a mirror and voice for it. I think it’s still possible to do this, but Weiwei crosses a line where I feel like his work is too easily digested, its meaning too quickly discerned, its function too quickly absorbed. In this way, it becomes journalism wearing a different face. This does not mean that I want to trivialize the role of journalism, in fact it is easily one of the most meaningful forces in the world today. However, in this iteration, it seems almost a waste of time. I encounter tragedy, death and destruction everyday as I work through the many atrocities being reported. Weiwei points to a relative blip in an ocean of newsworthy horror.  I recognize that artwork takes time to create, but that the earthquake took place almost six years ago gives it a questionable relevance. While the contemporary art world can be a culture of refined ethical negligence, that Weiwei breaks this is certainly admirable, nonetheless I found his exhibition rather boring. His fame certainly influences this interpretation, but overall I was surprised to find myself feeling that the role he has played over the past years has become redundant to the point of monotony.

 Judy Chicago: Early Works

Due to its permanence, Chicago’s epic work, The Dinner Table, is both the thing that is identified with her career and what makes her commonly known as the feminist artist. It’s a wonderful surprise then to see her earlier work which offers a much greater complexity to her story. While its message is immense, The Dinner Table fails to be particularly aesthetically impressive. Since this work is often all someone will learn of her oeuvre, it’s easy to be dismissive of her as one-dimensional. This is, however, entirely not the case. It’s fascinating to work through this exhibition which in some ways offers a prehistory to The Dinner Table.

First we see some of her early minimalist sculptures. They are beautiful, colorful and playful and reflect her dalliance with and challenge to her predominantly male contemporaries. They could almost be mistaken for a McCracken or a Judd except that they are more dynamic and less self-important. While she preserves the simple geometric shapes and highly polished surfaces of the time, her works are angled and colored in a way that shows her difference and her daring. Simply put, they are more interesting and fun, not in a trivial way, but more a suggesting of whimsy and enjoyment of form often absent from her peers. Imagine Andre making a “fun” piece… Exactly. This direct reference seems to fade and we see a few pieces which show her engaging with material more for beauty alone. On pedestals there are rounded pieces of transparent plastic with cloudy fields of color shining through from the bottom. This creates a dreamlike colorful wash with amazingly intelligent iridescence and poetry. Nearby a series called The Lifesavers, which mimic the shape of the popular candy, albeit enlarged, multicolored and perfectly drawn on large acrylic sheets. Again Chicago shows her immense formal talent meeting an evolved sense of color and cleverness. These works suggest pop art while still retaining a strong palpable sense of purpose and identity. The later room of this show features a number of large acrylic abstract pattern works on acrylic which have the simple, elegant grandeur of a Martin while still firmly resting in the human realm. There are almost color-field works but their uniqueness makes them stand out.

It seems that soon after this phase, Chicago filled out her identity and stopped feeling the need to prove her worth in more conventional ways, turning then to performance art and eventually to the iconic Dinner Table. While seeing her prior steps did not make me enjoy The Dinner Table any more aesthetically, it certainly compelled me to give it much more attention for its merits as a truly exceptional piece of empowerment and untold history. While I didn’t spend so much time with the work itself, I read every single word of the many paragraphs which document femininity, female deities and archetypes as well as significant women from pre-history to the twentieth century. While The Dinner Table and Chicago’s earlier work still seem somewhat disjointed, beginning to understand the story that led to its creation gives her destination as a feminist art icon so much more meaning, and so much more depth. Chicago is not an artist who made one piece, she’s a great sculptor who went through many phases and periods and deserves the recognition she receives, and a whole lot more.

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